Erykah Badu’s live shows are the stuff of legend. The singer is known for her powerful soul voice and crack live band, but also for the versatility of her setlist, which can change at a moment’s notice depending on the night, the crowd and the vibe. She does old songs, she does new songs, and she creates entirely fresh musical moments onstage.
“If I could, I’d do every song I’ve ever written in the live show, but there’s just not time,” Badu says with a gentle laugh. “My band and I have been performing together for a really long time, long enough that they know everything, so we’re able to have a lot of versatility in the show. Things can just flow,” she says. “The energy is always different, the atmosphere is different, and so we always create the show in the moment. Playing a live show is the opposite of recording. Playing live is about creating a moment; recording is about perfecting a moment. You have to make everything perfect when you record, but playing live is more about taking chances.”
Years of touring have taught Badu that different places in the world have different needs, and her show each night is a response to an intangible something in the air. “When we’re in America, in a place like Denver, the air and the water there are really clean, so everybody’s going to be relaxed and having a good time,” she explains. “When I’m performing in a place like Detroit or Baltimore, though, it’s a different show. The water is not as clean there. Those cities are plagued with a lot of crime, and even if you’re living a decent life there, you feel the vibrations of those who aren’t.” She can’t perform the same set in both places. “I’m kind of mutable, you might say – I feel what’s going on in each place, I watch how people behave, and I change my show to fit in with that. The most important thing to me is that I connect with the audience.”
Given that Badu will soon return to Australia, I ask about her experiences with crowds in this part of the world, and how her shows here generally go down. “I’m not saying this just because I’m coming to Australia,” she replies, “but I really love it down there. The air there is clean, the people are beautiful, and it feels very, very good to play there.”
In fact, Badu’s last trip to Australia was the source of one of her most cherished memories. “I felt so good the last time I was there. I had a set of turntables in my hotel room, I had the windows open and all of my favourite tunes, and I was just watching people walk on the street below me while I played songs. When I want to picture a time that I felt really great, I close my eyes and think back to the time I spent in Australia. I felt very free.”
There’s one subject that hasn’t come up in our interview so far, but there’s no way I can let Badu go without asking about ‘Window Seat’. The video takes place the same street in Dallas where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and is presented in one continuous shot, with Badu gradually stripping naked as she walks. What was the initial inspiration for such a bold idea?
“Well, when I was trying to think of something for the ‘Window Seat’ video, I really wanted to do something more special than I had done before, because I always feel like I’m in competition with myself. I thought back to artists like Nina Simone and Josephine Baker, people whose music goes beyond performance, who used their music to spread a message.”
That message was one about the dangers of conformity. “I became interested in this term, ‘groupthink’,” Badu explains. “I hadn’t ever heard of it before, but it defines a group of people who are afraid to go out of the thought patterns of their group, of their community or church, say, because they’re afraid that being an individual will cause them to be ostracised, singled out for attack. This term was coined by a sociologist called Irving Janis, and a lot of sociologists and writers have played around with it, but his take on it is the first. I started really thinking on this idea, and what it means in a present-day sense.”
The job of an artist, Badu says, is to create a dialogue, and reflecting upon the concept of groupthink, she saw the idea of getting naked in the street as a way to both rebel and liberate. “Public nudity is not in fashion,” she laughs, “so I expected there to be a big dialogue around it, and there was.”
The video’s location was also of great significance to Badu, who holds JFK in very high esteem. “He’s a very important figure, for the nation and for me personally,” she says. “People really sensationalise the idea of Camelot, but if you look at the man behind that, he was not afraid to make tough policy decisions. That’s the kind of person I wanted to pay tribute to. As I walked down the street and started stripping off my clothes, I was very nervous. I mean, it was just me and a camera walking this busy street, and I was petrified at the start of the video, but once I’d gotten out of the car and started walking, I knew it was something I had to go through with, because it would be a liberating experience. As I took each piece of clothing off, I felt like I was shedding a fear, a judgement, a belief system, and I focused on those thoughts as I took each step, so I wouldn’t be distracted by anything else. It was a demonstration, it was a conversation, and it was an exercise.”
In a recent feature for Interview magazine, Badu spoke to young gun Kendrick Lamar, and one of her first questions was about what he hopes to achieve in his career. It was an interesting question to pose to the new kid, and I wonder: if someone had asked Badu the same thing at the beginning of her career when her 1997 Baduizm album was just coming out, what would she have told them? The singer, who has been in the game for nearly two decades at this point, takes a moment to reflect on this.
“If someone had asked me that when my first album was coming out, I’d have told them that I would like to gather a collection of autobiographical memories to give my children,” she says. “That would be my aim, so they might listen to my words and think on me, and then one day feel compelled to create something for their children.”